August 30, 2017, a low-pressure system in the eastern Atlantic forms. People living on the east coast of the United States and other island nations, go about their lives as usual. By September 4, hurricane warnings are issued for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and by the following day Hurricane Irma is a Category 5 storm with sustained wind speeds of 175+ mph and labeled,
Hurricane Irma ripped across the Atlantic devastating Cuba, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Bahamas, and several other islands before making landfall in Florida on September 10 as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds. Nearly seven million people headed north in the most massive evacuation in United States history. Irma-anxiety was intense. The monster storm was the first major hurricane to make landfall in Florida since the 2004-2005 hurricane seasons, when eight hurricanes tormented the state within a two-year span.
Flipping the Switch
Getting the power back is not easy in the best of circumstances, but Irma’s wake created extenuating challenges. Over 6.5 million businesses and residences lost power statewide. That’s 64 percent of all electric sector accounts in Florida. Fallen trees and overturned vegetation blocked roadways forcing crews to clear the debris before work could begin. For FPL, it was the largest number of customer outages in company history, with more than 3.5 million customers without power. The largest restoration workforce in United States history set up numerous staging sites packed with 28,000 workers from 30 different states and Canada.
FPL activated their emergency response plan after the storm had passed to restore power quickly and safely. Within 24 hours, damage assessments were conducted to identify impaired power plants, power lines, and substations. Getting the electricity core repaired was the first step. The next priority was restoring power to the facilities vital to life and health, including hospitals, police and fire stations, communication and transportation systems, and water treatment plants. At the same time, the utilities worked to restore service to the customers—working around the clock to help everyone affected. FPL’s systematic efforts returned power to nearly one million customers even before Irma exited the company’s service area, with 2 million customers restored by the end of the first day of work. Full recovery was achieved ten days after the storm.
FPL hails the Hurricane Irma power recovery as the “fastest restoration of the largest number of people by any one utility in U.S. history.” Much of their success can be traced back to eleven years-worth of storm-hardening protections and an investment of over $3 billion to make the energy grid smarter and more resilient to turbulent weather. Included in their resiliency strategy was strengthening or replacing power poles, developing smart grid diagnostics, and installing more than 5 million smart meters to help monitor the energy grid.
An Ounce of Prevention
Drawing from lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy, which struck the northeast in 2012, FPL gave their substations a technology makeover. The takeaway from Sandy was that storm surge can wash through areas not usually prone to flooding—resulting in widespread power outages. FPL placed real-time flood monitors at 237 substations most vulnerable to storm surge. Adding technological advancements proved beneficial during the response to Irma as none of the hardened transmission structures were lost, demonstrating how storm preparedness positively impacts the speed of and decreases the costs of storm response.
Hurricane Irma is the fifth-costliest Atlantic hurricane totaling nearly $65 billion in damage globally. It was also the strongest in the Atlantic when it comes to maximum sustained winds, which peaked at 185 mph; 134 people died in its aftermath. Be that as it may, the other side of the story is one of appreciation for the severity of the storm, responsibility in decision-making at all levels, from everyday citizens to the emergency managers, and in the utility companies’ vested interest in the precautionary planning that ultimately led to the fastest power restoration for the largest number of impacted people in United States history. Lessons learned are only learned if acted upon. Let that be the lesson as the nation faces new challenges with each passing